Juventus stoppage-time controversy masks their bigger, longer-term issues

Date published: Monday 12th September 2022 1:29 - Ian King

Leonardo Bonucci scores for Juventus against Salernitana

Stoppage-time controversy cost Juventus a win against Salernitana, but a narrow focus on those shenanigans masks problems stretching back to last season.

 

In the age of the viral video, it was inevitable that the scenes at the end of the Serie A match between Juventus and Salernitana would flash around the world. As the clock ticked past the 90-minute mark at the Allianz Arena, Juventus were 2-1 behind and facing their first league defeat of the season.

In the 93rd minute they received a late lifeline when awarded a penalty. Leonardo Bonucci stepped up to take it and scored at the second attempt after his first shot was saved, and two minutes later it looked as though they’d scraped an unlikely win when Arkadiusz Milik netted again with a flicked header.

But on this occasion, the video assistant stepped in. Millik, who was already on a yellow card, was sent off for removing his shirt, and as play went to kick off again, everything was halted while the goal was reviewed. Eventually, a decision was reached that Bonucci had been offside as he strained to touch the ball past the goalkeeper, and it was disallowed.

By this time, all hell had broken loose. Salernitana’s Federico Fazio and Juventus’ Juan Cuadrado were both shown straight red cards, while Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri was also dismissed. The match finished in a 2-2 draw with the home side fuming over the intervention of the video assistants.

But attention focusing on the shortcomings of VAR in this particular match only tells part of a broader story. This result left Juventus in eighth place in the Serie A table, already four points off the top of the table, and although they remain one of just four unbeaten teams in the league this season (alongside the top three of Napoli, Atalanta and Milan), that record is somewhat undermined by the fact that they’ve only won two of their league games, drawing the other four.

And furthermore, their Champions League campaign didn’t exactly start in an idea fashion either, with their first group match ending in a 2-1 defeat away to PSG in which they were two goals down by the midway point in the first half. With four matches coming up against Benfica and Maccabi Haifa, they may consider losing to PSG an acceptable loss, but this is still a result that leaves them needing to play catch-up in their group. A failure to beat Benfica at home in their next match would leave their chances of qualification for the first knockout stage of the competition looking decidedly shaky.

The dramatic conclusion to the Salernitana match told its own story. Juventus had already fallen two goals behind to moderate opposition before hauling their way back into the game in the first place. By the time Millik’s goal was chalked off, they’re already needed a penalty kick in stoppage-time to get back to parity.

Watching all this drama unfold it was difficult not to reflect upon the fact that Juventus had found themselves depending on those extra minutes in the first place. At the risk of sounding a little condescending toward their opponents, shouldn’t Juventus, one of the prime movers behind the ongoing European Super League debacle, be swatting mid-table Serie A sides aside with comfort?

Their only other league win came against Spezia, another team expected to struggle this season, with draws against Sampdoria, Roma and Fiorentina on top of the Salernitana result. It’s obviously too early to write their season off – most would probably still expect them to at least finish in the top four and qualify for next year’s Champions League – but obviously a slow start is a concern.

All of this inevitably turns up the heat under head coach Massimiliano Allegri. The Italian is now two years into his second spell with Juventus. His first ended with the highest win percentage of any coach in the history of the club and five consecutive Serie A titles (out of nine in total), but his return has failed to get anywhere close to those heights.

Last season, Juventus scraped into fourth place and that all-important Champions League place, but the story of their season is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that while they finished eight points above the bottom place for European football – Fiorentina, in seventh place, grabbed that Europa Conference League place – they finished 16 points behind champions Milan.

In other words, last season Juventus as close to the mid-table than the top, and there have been few signs this season to indicate that they’re in a position to close that gap. And while Champions League qualification is critical to their financial wellbeing, it seems clear that it isn’t enough on its own to keep the club financially afloat.

It was reported at the end of 2021 that Juventus lost almost €210m during the 2020/21 campaign, and financial losses for last season aren’t expected to be any better, despite managing to get the dead weight of Cristiano Ronaldo’s wage off their accounts ledger. This summer brought the return of Paul Pogba after his unhappy time at Manchester United, but he has already been the subject of this season’s strangest gossip story and will not be playing for them now until January anyway after picking up a knee injury in pre-season which leaves him requiring surgery.

None of this constitutes a crisis for the Old Lady just yet, but the warning signs are starting to build. Milan have been revitalised, while the early signs this season are that Udinese and Atalanta, two clubs who slipped somewhat last season, may have put that behind them. The combination of bad fortune and salacious gossip surrounding Paul Pogba is simultaneously surprising and completely unsurprising.

But at the root of it all is a gap between the club’s pretensions and the reality of their current position. For all the European Super League talk, it has been striking that Juventus have receded in recent seasons, to a point at which it could become difficult to even consider them amongst the ‘elite’ of European club football, should they not start winning more matches again. And that gap is only likely to be overlooked again by the controversy of stoppage-time during their match against Salernitana.

Juventus’ biggest concern should not be a disallowed stoppage-time winner against moderate opposition. It should be that failing to beat moderate opposition keeps on happening, and this season’s slow start looks more like a continuation of their last underwhelming season than the start of anything fresher. For a club that self-styles itself amongst Europe’s elite, this is surely not a situation that will be tolerated for that much longer, and Allegri may be forgiven for looking over his shoulder as he turns up for work this week.

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